Saturday, February 28, 2015

Alexander Stuart: Physician, Natural Philospher, Meticulous Note Taker

Alexander Stuart was a man of elusive beginnings. His birth speculatively occurred around 1673 somewhere in northeast Scotland, possibly Aberdeen. There are no records of his early life until 1691 when he appears to have graduated MA from Marsichal College, Aberdeen. He is heard of again in 1698 as a practicing surgeon-apothecary and in 1701, he joined the trader London as the ship’s surgeon from 1701-1704. In 1704, he transferred to Europe, where he stayed until 1707 and began the habit of keeping meticulous notes on his surgical cases.
            Stuart corresponded with Hans Sloan for years and they appeared to have an amiable frienship. In one letter written before his ship departs from London in February 1701/1702, Stuart gives thanks to Sloan’s “extraordinary kindnesses... on all occasions” (Sloane MS 4038) and specifically mentions a provision of books Sloan had recently lent him. Their correspondence continued while Stuart was at sea, providing Sloan with accounts of his voyages and sending him natural history specimens. Several of these reports were published in the Philosophical Transaction such as in 1702 when he sent a letter to the publisher describing some Watersprouts he studied in the Mediterranean. Stuart eventually quit his life of the sea in 1708 and stayed briefly in Ireland before traveling to London to work as a surgeon. His connections with Sloan and Sir David Hamilton helped him gain admittance to the University of Leiden’s medical school, in which he enrolled at the age of thirty-six on 14 December 1709. It appears Sloan wrote a letter in favor of Stuart to a professor at Leiden, Boerhaave, which had an “extraordinary affect” (Sloane MS 4042). Stuart had profound admiration for Boerhaave for he appeared to be “a man of great Ingenuity, Learning and Candor” (Ibid). On 22 June 1711, Stuart graduated a doctor of medicine with a dissertation on the study of muscular motion, “De structura et motu musculari.”
            Stuart served in the British army in Flanders for a short period and returned to London in 1712. Starting out in the medical field proved a difficult feat, especially in London's competitive atmosphere. The first few years in the practice were difficult for Stuart, in which he earned very little money, accumulating merely 100 pounds during the year 1713. Nevertheless, his intellect did not go unnoticed. The Royal Society elected Stuart on 30 November 1714 and in December 1715, he was appointed the position first physician for Westminster Hospital. Stuart was eventually admitted licentiate on 25 June 1720 to the Royal College of Physicians of London.
            During the mid-1720s, Stuart was actively advocating for the smallpox inoculation and ran trials on several patients. Fellow physician, William Douglass, adamantly spoke out against inoculation in his pamphlet The Abuses and Scandals of some Late Pamphlets in Favour of Inoculation of the Small Pox. Published in 1722, Douglass addressed his argument to Stuart directly. No matter Douglass’s opinion, in 1728 Stuart received the MD from Cambridge, comitiis regiae, and subsequently the position of physician-in-ordinary to Queen Caroline. He was accepted as a fellow of the Royal Society of Physicians on 2 September 1728, where he was censor in 1732 and 1741. After an internal dispute at Westminster Hospital in October 1733, Stuart and several of his colleagues split with the hospital and founded St. George’s Hospital, where Stuart would remain until 9 July 1736.  
Although Stuart was making nearly 100 pounds a month by this point in his career, he faced financial difficulties that led him to invest into the South Sea Company in 1720. After the Bubble burst, Stuart faced heavy losses and needed to find a way to cover his debt. He married a woman named Susannah, who owned property in in the parish of St. Paul's, Covent Garden in January 1726 and a year later, Stuart turned over his assets to his wife. He retained his manuscripts planning to sell them and use the money toward paying off his debts.
Stuart's finances were a bit of a disaster but his career and intellect were anything but. Physiology had been the subject of his dissertation and he resumed this work in the 1720s. He wrote papers for the Philosophical Transactions on "The Use of Bile in the Animal Oeconomy" and "The Existence of a Fluid in the Nerves." His work on muscular motion got him invited to give a Croonian Lecture at the Royal Society in 1738 and later that year he was awarded a prize from the Academy of Bordeaux for a revision of his MD thesis. Stuart's popularity in France resulted in him becoming a foreign member of the French Academy of Sciences. 
Following Boerhaave and Archibald Pitcairne, Stuart's research on muscles broke from prevailing notions and instead emphasized a mechanical system as an explanation to muscular motion and nervous system activity. The concept, termed vascular hydraulics, was supported in part through his experiment on a decapitated frog, in which the frogs' the legs twitch after he inserted a probe into its spinal column. Stuart theorized the twitch in the leg was caused by fluid being pushed into the leg muscles. This experiment was published in the Philosophical Transactions in 1731 and had an influence on Whytt and Haller's later reflex studies, even though they ultimately disagreed with Stuart's conclusions. Stuart also backed his theory with microscopic examinations that compared the structures of blood vessels and nerves. Overall, this research earned Stuart the Copley medal by the Royal Society in 1740 and he was asked to deliver another Croonian lecture in 1740 and 1741.
Stuart passed away not long after these final achievements on 15 September 1742. Upon his death, he was still 3,000 pounds in debt from loans he received during the South Sea bubble two decades earlier. His will named Henry Baker and Hugh Frasier as executors but they refused. Baker was also asked to publish his remaining manuscripts and sell them as subscriptions but upon Baker's refusal, it became his wife's duty. The papers she managed to sell fetched only a paltry sum unable to cover the rest of his debts. 


BL, corresp., Sloane MSS 4038–4040, 4042, 4045–4056

Douglass, William. The Abuses and Scandals of some Late Pamphlets in Favour of Inoculation of the Small Pox. Boston: J. Franklin, 1722.
Munk, William, G. H. Brown. The Roll of the Royal College of Physicians of London: 1701- 1800. London: The College, 1878.

“Stuart, Alexander (1673?–1742),” Anita Guerrini in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, eee ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: OUP, 2004); online ed., ed. Lawrence Goldman, January 2008, (accessed February 25, 2015).

Stuart, Alexander. Part of a Letter from Mr Alex. Stuart, (a Physician) to the Publisher, concerning Some Spouts He Observed in the Mediterranean. Phil Trans R Soc 1702 23: 1077-1082. 

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